Today has been designated the day of the bandoneon in Argentina by official law of Congress. This date was chosen because it is the birthday of (1914) Aníbal Carmelo Troilo, much loved and revered bandoneon player, composer, and orchestra leader in the 1930s and 1940s in the heyday of tango in Buenos Aires. The bandoneon is the quintessential tango instrument even though it was invented in Germany and produced there exclusively until the 1940s. Subsequently classic bandoneons became rarer and rarer in Argentina and helped contribute to the slow death of traditional tango. Here’s a link to a documentary that, in my opinion, is the best single review of the history and current status of the bandoneon in Argentina. It follows the fortunes of a young woman who is attempting to join an orquesta tipica (tango band) and learn from one of the masters. It also talks about the slow demise of the bandoneon in Buenos Aires and has interviews with famous older players (as well as many full-length performances and discussions of playing style). It is around 90 minutes long, so I have not embedded it here for the sake of conserving disc space. It is in Argentine Spanish with English subtitles and is well worth your time if you want a really comprehensive understanding of the instrument:
Here is Troilo playing his own composition“Sur” in rare live footage:
The bandoneon is named for its inventor, Heinrich Band (1821–1860), and was originally intended as an instrument for religious and popular music of the day, in contrast to its free reed predecessors the concertina and the button accordion which were largely used for folk music. Around 1870, German and Italian emigrants and sailors brought the instrument to Argentina, where it was adopted into the nascent genre of tango music which was slowly emerging as a distinct musical and dance form at the time, particularly (but not exclusively) in the docklands of my old barrio, san Telmo.
By 1910 bandoneons were being produced expressly for the Argentine and Uruguayan markets, with 25,000 shipping to Argentina in 1930 alone. However, declining popularity and the disruption of German manufacturing in World War II led to an end of bandoneon mass-production. Bandoneons were never produced in Argentina itself despite their popularity. As a result, by the 2000s, vintage bandoneons had become rare and expensive limiting prospective bandeonistas. In 2014, the National University of Lanús announced their development of an affordable Argentine-made bandoneon, which they hope to market for one-third to one-half of the cost of vintage instruments.
The bandoneon is like a concertina in that it has buttons on the left and right hand, but it has many more than a typical concertina so that it can play completely chromatically over a number of octaves. Typically bandoneons are bisonic, meaning that each button produces one note when the bellows are pushed, and a different note when they are pulled. Here’s a fairly standard layout (click to enlarge):
The bandoneon is not an enormously difficult instrument to play if all you want to do is bang out a simple tune with a few chords. That was its original intention. But to master the instrument for tango is a lifetime’s occupation, and very few people succeed. You really have to start at 5 or 6 years old, and even then, with constant practice, you are not ready to join an orquesta until your 20s at the earliest. The bandoneon in this respect is like any classical orchestral instruments. It’s not just a matter of playing the notes, but of understanding the subtleties of rhythm and intonation that are unique to the instrument and to tango itself.
As Argentina modernizes, classic tango and bandoneon playing are seen as old fashioned, and, consequently, are dying as younger people embrace pop, rock, and hip-hop. To my mind, and to the minds of many Argentinos, this state of affairs is a tragedy because tango is truly Argentine grown. It has some roots in European musical style, to be sure, but what it evolved into is uniquely Argentino. Even attempts to modernize it by the likes of Ástor Piazzolla, (who played with Troilo before branching out), weaken the spirit of tango, in my oh-so-humble opinion, by introducing elements of blues, jazz, etc. which are not Argentine products at all. For me, nuevo tango is simply not tango. Most foreigners don’t get it because they don’t know real tango to begin with. If you go to plaza Dorrego in san Telmo on a Sunday afternoon, chances are you’ll run into one of my favorite tango orquestas, playing down a side street opposite iglesia san Pedro. They are young enthusiasts keeping the tradition alive.
Over 4 years of posting I’ve pretty much covered the waterfront when it comes to Buenos Aires cooking. There’s not a whole lot to it to begin with. Some regional recipes find their way into Capital’s kitchens, however. Here’s a recipe for Patagonian Carbonada Criolla which I’ve had once or twice made by local cooks. Its origins in European stews are obvious but the ingredients are a little different – especially the dried apricots. Argentine beef is best of course. Even stewing beef is a lot tenderer there. You may have to adjust cooking times if you use your local beef.
⅓ cup olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 ½ lbs stewing beef, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 28 oz can stewed tomatoes
2 cups beef broth
3 sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 white potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 tbspn sugar(optional)
1 large winter squash, peeled and cubed
7 oz dried apricots, roughly chopped
salt and pepper
2 ears sweetcorn, sliced in 1” rounds
Heat the olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat and sauté the peppers and onions until they are lightly golden.
Add the beef and brown on all sides.
Add the stewed tomatoes, beef broth, potatoes, sugar (if used), squash and apricots plus salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a slow simmer, cover and cook for an hour. Check periodically to make sure the stew is not too dry. If so add a little more beef broth. Simmer longer is the beef is not tender.
Today is the feast of Saint Erasmus of Formia, also known as Saint Elmo, a Christian saint and martyr, who, according to Christian tradition, died c. 303. He is venerated as the patron saint of sailors and abdominal pain. Not much is known about his life. The Acts of Saint Elmo were partly compiled from legends that confuse him with a Syrian bishop Erasmus of Antioch. Jacobus de Voragine in the Golden Legend credited him as a bishop at Formia over all the Italian Campania, as a hermit on Mount Lebanon, and a martyr in the persecutions under Eastern Roman Emperor Diocletian.
Saint Erasmus may have become the patron of sailors because he is said to have continued preaching even after a thunderbolt struck the ground beside him. This prompted sailors, who were in danger from sudden storms and lightning, to pray to him. The electrical discharges at the mastheads of ships were read as a sign of his protection and came to be called “Saint Elmo’s Fire.”
I am interested in him because indirectly he gave his name and patronage to my barrio in Buenos Aires – San Telmo. It was known as San Pedro Heights during the 17th century, mostly home to the city’s growing contingent of dockworkers and brickmakers. The area became Buenos Aires’ first “industrial” area, home to its first windmill and most of the early city’s brick kilns and warehouses. The bulk of the city’s exports of wool, hides and leather (the Argentine region’s chief source of income as late as the 1870s) were prepared and stored here in colonial times. Their presence led to the first residential settlements in this area: that of Africans, slaves and free, alike.
Previously separated from Buenos Aires proper by a ravine, the area was formally incorporated into the city in 1708 as the “Ovens and Storehouses of San Pedro.” The neighborhood’s poverty led the Jesuits to found a “Spiritual House” in the area, a charitable and educational mission referred to by San Pedro’s indigent as “the Residence.” The suppression of the Jesuits in 1767 led to the mission’s closure.
The void left by the Jesuits’ departure was addressed by the 1806 establishment of the Parish of San Pedro González Telmo (or “San Telmo”), named in honor Saint Elmo because he was the patron of sailors and the barrio was a vital port at the time. This move failed to replace the lost social institutions, however, and San Telmo languished well after Argentine independence in 1816. The Jesuit Residence, restored as a clinic by Guatemalan friars, was closed in 1821, and San Telmo saw no public works for the next 30 years except a Black Infantrymen’s Quarters and the construction of the infamous Mazorca Dungeon by Governor Juan Manuel de Rosas (now a grizzly museum which you can visit).
San Telmo began to improve despite these challenges, particularly after Rosas’ removal from power in 1852. The establishment of new clinics, the installation of gas mains, lighting, sewers, running water and cobblestones and the opening of the city’s main wholesale market led to increasing interest in the area on the part of the well-to-do and numerous imposing homes were built in the western half of San Telmo. This promising era ended abruptly when an epidemic of yellow fever struck the area in 1871. The new clinics and the heroic efforts of physicians such as Florentino Ameghino helped curb the northward spread of the epidemic; but as time went on it claimed over 10,000 lives, and this led to the exodus of San Telmo’s growing middle and upper classes into what later became Barrio Norte.
At first hundreds of properties became vacant. A few of the larger lots were converted into needed parks, the largest of which is Lezama Park, designed by the renowned French-Argentine urban planner Charles Thays in 1891 as a complement to the new Argentine National Museum of History. Most large homes, though, became tenement housing during the wave of immigration into Argentina from Europe (mostly Italy) between 1875 and 1930. San Telmo became the most multicultural neighborhood in Buenos Aires, home to large communities of British, Galician, Italian and Russian-Argentines. The large numbers of Russians in San Telmo and elsewhere in Buenos Aires led to the consecration of Argentina’s first Russian Orthodox Church in 1901. Expanding industry to the south also led a German immigrant, Otto Krause, to open a technical school here in 1897.
San Telmo’s bohemian air began attracting local artists after upwardly-mobile immigrants left the area. Increasing cultural activity resulted in the opening of the Buenos Aires Museum of Modern Art by critic Rafael Squirru in 1956, as well as in the 1960 advent of the “Republic of San Telmo,” an artisan guild which organized art walks and other events. San Telmo’s immigrant presence also led to quick popularization of tango in the area: long after that genre’s heyday, renowned vocalist Edmundo Rivero purchased an abandoned colonial-era grocery in 1969, christening it El Viejo Almacén (“The Old Grocery Store”). This soon became one of the city’s best-known tango music halls, helping lead to a cultural and economic revival in San Telmo.
The 1980 restoration of the former Ezeiza family mansion into the Pasaje de la Defensa (“Defensa Street Promenade”), moreover, has led to the refurbishment of numerous such structures, many of which had been conventillos (tenements) since the 1870s. As most of San Telmo’s 19th century architecture and cobblestone streets remain, it has also become an important tourist attraction especially on Sundays when there is a gigantic flea market in the center along with street music and dancing (and when I stay home !!).
Grilled Provoleta is a local specialty in san Telmo. Provoleta is a trademark, and common name, for an Argentine variant of provolone cheese described as “Argentine pulled-curd Provolone cheese.” It is eaten barbecued throughout Argentina and less commonly in Uruguay. The cheese was developed by Natalio Alba in about 1940, and the PROVOLETA trademark was established in 1963. The cheese is produced with a pulled-curd (pasta filata) technique.
Small discs of Provoleta of 10 to 15 cm in diameter and 1 to 2 cm in height are often eaten at the start of an asado, before the grilled meat. The Provoleta, usually topped with oil, chile, tomatoes, and oregano, is placed directly on the grill, on small stones, or inside a foil plate, and cooked until part-melted. The Provoleta may be seasoned with chimichurri (see here https://www.bookofdaystales.com/international-left-handers-day/ ), and is usually eaten communally with bread.
There’s no real substitute for San Telmo fire-grilled Provoleta, but you can make a kind of replica by taking a disk of provolone, placing it on a well-heated, greased cast-iron skillet, crisping the bottom, then running it under a broiler until darkened on top. Drizzle olive oil over the top and sprinkle with crushed red chiles and oregano, or chimichurri, and eat straight from the pan by dipping in crusty bread.
Today is the birthday (1921) of Astor Pantaleón Piazzolla, Argentine tango composer, bandoneón player and band leader whose work revolutionized the traditional tango by incorporating elements from jazz and classical music. I can’t say that I am a fan because I have a deep purist streak in me, but I recognize his skills. Here’s a sample:
Piazzolla was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in 1921, the only child of Italian immigrant parents, Vicente “Nonino” Piazzolla and Asunta Manetti. His paternal grandfather, a sailor and fisherman named Pantaleo (later Pantaleón) Piazzolla, had immigrated to Mar del Plata from Trani, a seaport in the southeastern Italian region of Apulia, at the end of the 19th century. His mother was the daughter of two Italian immigrants from Lucca in Tuscany. In 1925 Astor Piazzolla moved with his family to Greenwich Village in New York City, which in those days was a violent neighborhood inhabited by a volatile mixture of gangsters and hard-working immigrants. His parents worked long hours and Piazzolla soon learned to take care of himself on the streets despite having a limp. At home he would listen to his father’s records of the tango orchestras of Carlos Gardel and Julio de Caro, and was also exposed to jazz and classical music, including Bach, from an early age. He began to play the bandoneón after his father spotted one in a New York pawn shop in 1929.
After their return to New York City from a brief visit to Mar del Plata in 1930, the family went to live in Little Italy in lower Manhattan, and in 1932 Piazzolla composed his first tango La catinga. The following year Piazzolla took music lessons with the Hungarian classical pianist Bela Wilda, a student of Rachmaninoff, who taught him to play Bach on his bandoneón. In 1934 he met Carlos Gardel, (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/tango-day/ ), and played a cameo role as a young paper boy in his movie El día que me quieras. Gardel invited Piazzolla to join him on his current tour. Much to Piazzolla’s dismay, his father decided that he was not old enough to go along. This early disappointment of not being allowed to join the tour proved to be a blessing in disguise, as it was on this tour that Gardel and his entire orchestra died in a plane crash in 1935. In 1936, he returned with his family to Mar del Plata, where he began to play in a variety of tango orchestras and around this time he discovered the music of Elvino Vardaro’s sextet on the radio. Vardaro’s novel interpretation of tango made a great impression on Piazzolla and years later he would become Piazzolla’s violinist in his Orquesta de Cuerdas and his First Quintet.
Inspired by Vardaro’s style of tango, and still only 17 years old, Piazzolla moved to Buenos Aires in 1938 where, the following year, he realized a dream when he joined the orchestra of the bandoneónist Anibal Troilo, which would become one of the greatest tango orchestras of that time. Piazzolla was employed as a temporary replacement for Toto Rodríguez who was ill, but when Rodríguez returned to work Troilo decided to retain Piazzolla as a fourth bandoneónist. Apart from playing the bandoneón, Piazzolla also became Troilo’s arranger and would occasionally play the piano for him. By 1941 he was earning a good wage, enough to pay for music lessons with Alberto Ginastera, an eminent Argentine composer of classical music. It was the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, then living in Buenos Aires, who had advised him to study with Ginastera and delving into scores of Stravinsky, Bartók, Ravel, and others, Piazzolla rose early each morning to hear the Teatro Colón orchestra rehearse while continuing a grueling performance schedule in the tango clubs at night. During his five years of study with Ginastera he mastered orchestration, which he later considered to be one of his strong points. In 1943 he started piano lessons with the Argentine classical pianist Raúl Spivak, which continued for the next five years, and wrote his first classical works Preludio No. 1 for Violin and Piano and Suite for Strings and Harps. That same year he married his first wife, Dedé Wolff, an artist, with whom he had two children, Diana and Daniel.
As time went by Troilo began to fear that Piazzolla’s advanced musical ideas might undermine the style of his orchestra and make it less appealing to tango dancers. Tensions mounted between the two until, in 1944, Piazzolla announced his intention to leave Troilo and join Francisco Fiorentino’s orchestra. Piazzolla led Fiorentino’s orchestra until 1946 and made many recordings with him, including his first two instrumental tangos, La chiflada and Color de rosa.
In 1946 Piazzolla formed his Orquesta Típica, which, although having a similar formation to other tango orchestras of the day, gave him his first opportunity to experiment with his own approach to the orchestration and musical content of tango. That same year he composed, El Desbande, which he considered to be his first formal tango, and then began to compose musical scores for films, starting with Con los mismos colores in 1949 and Bólidos de acero in 1950, both films directed by Carlos Torres Ríos.
Having disbanded his first orchestra in 1950 he almost abandoned tango altogether as he continued to study Bartok and Stravinsky and orchestra direction with Hermann Scherchen. He spent a lot of time listening to jazz and searching for a musical style of his own beyond the realms of tango. He decided to drop the bandoneon and to dedicate himself to writing and to studying music. Between 1950 and 1954 he composed a series of works that began to develop his unique style: Para lucirse, Tanguango, Prepárense, Contrabajeando, Triunfal and Lo que vendrá.
At Ginastera’s urging, Piazzolla entered his classical composition Buenos Aires Symphony, in three movements, for the Fabian Sevitzky Award on August 16, 1953. The performance took place at the Law School in Buenos Aires with the symphony orchestra of Radio del Estado under the direction of Sevitzky himself. At the end of the concert a fight broke out among some members of the audience who were offended by the inclusion of two bandoneóns in a traditional symphony orchestra. In spite of this Piazzolla’s composition won a grant from the French government to study in Paris with the legendary French composition teacher Nadia Boulanger at the Fontainebleau conservatory.
In 1954 he and his wife left their two children (Diana aged 11 and Daniel aged 10) behind with Piazzolla’s parents and traveled to Paris. At this stage in his life Piazzolla was tired of tango and at first, he tried to hide his tanguero past and his bandoneón compositions from Boulanger, thinking that his destiny lay in classical music. By way of introduction to his work, Piazzolla played her a number of his classically-inspired compositions but it was not until he finally played his tango Triunfal that she immediately congratulated him and encouraged him to pursue his career in tango, recognizing that this was where his true musical talent lay. This was to prove an historic encounter and a crossroad in Piazzolla’s career.
During his time with Boulanger he studied classical composition including counterpoint which was to play a key role in his later tango compositions. Before leaving Paris he heard, and was deeply impressed by, the octet of the American jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, which was to give him the idea of forming his own octet on his return to Buenos Aires. At this time he composed and recorded a series of tangos with the String Orchestra of the Paris Opera and began to play the bandoneón while standing up, putting his right foot on a chair and the bellows of the instrument across his right thigh. Until that time bandoneónists played sitting down.
Back in Argentina, Piazzolla formed his Orquesta de Cuerdas (String Orchestra), which performed with the singer Jorge Sobral, and his Octeto Buenos Aires in 1955. With two bandoneóns (Piazzolla and Leopoldo Federico), two violins (Enrique Mario Francini and Hugo Baralis), double bass (Juan Vasallo), cello (José Bragato), piano (Atilio Stampone), and an electric guitar (Horacio Malvicino), his Octeto effectively broke the mould of the traditional orquesta típica and created a new sound akin to chamber music, without a singer and with jazz-like improvisations. This was to be a turning point in his career and a watershed in the history of tango. Piazzolla’s new approach to the tango, nuevo tango, made him a controversial figure in his native land both musically and politically. However, his music gained acceptance in Europe and North America, and his reworking of the tango was embraced by some liberal segments of Argentine society, who were pushing for political changes in parallel with his musical revolution.
In 1958 he disbanded both the Octeto and the String Orchestra and returned to New York City with his family where he struggled to make a living as a musician and arranger. Briefly forming his own group, the Jazz Tango Quintet with whom he made just two recordings, his attempts to blend jazz and tango were not successful. He received the news of the death of his father in October 1959 while performing with Juan Carlos Copes and María Nieves in Puerto Rico and on his return to New York City a few days later, he asked to be left alone in his apartment and in less than an hour wrote his famous tango Adiós Nonino, in homage to his father.
Copes and Nieves packed out Club Flamboyan in San Juan, Puerto Rico with “Compañia Argentina Tangolandia”. Piazzolla was serving as the musical director. The tour continued in New York, Chicago and then Washington. The last show that the three of them did together was an appearance on CBS the only color TV channel in the USA on the Arthur Murray Show in April 1960.
Back in Buenos Aires later that year he put together the first, and perhaps most famous, of his quintets, the first Quinteto, initially made up of bandoneón (Piazzolla), piano (Jaime Gosis), violin (Simón Bajour), electric guitar (Horacio Malvicino ) and double bass (Kicho Díaz). Of the many ensembles that Piazzolla set up during his career it was the quintet formation which best expressed his approach to tango. In 1965 he released El Tango, an album for which he collaborated with the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges. The recording featured his Quinteto together with an orchestra, the singer Edmundo Rivero and Luis Medina Castro reciting texts.
In 1967 he signed a five-year contract with the poet Horacio Ferrer with whom he composed the operetta María de Buenos Aires, with lyrics by Ferrer. The work was premiered in May 1968 with the singer Amelita Baltar in the title role and introduced a new style of tango, Tango Canción ( Song Tango). Soon after this he began a relationship with Baltar. The following year he wrote Balada para un loco with lyrics by Ferrer which was premiered at the First Iberoamerican Music Festival with Amelita Baltar and Piazzolla himself conducting the orchestra. Piazzolla was awarded second prize and the composition would prove to be his first popular success.
In 1970 Piazzolla returned to Paris where with Ferrer he wrote the oratorio El pueblo joven later premiered in Saarbrücken, Germany in 1971. On May 19, 1970 he gave a concert with his Quinteto at the Teatro Regina in Buenos Aires in which he premiered his composition Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas.
Back in Buenos Aires he founded his Conjunto 9 (aka Nonet), a chamber music formation, which was a realization of a dream for Piazzolla and for which he composed some of his most sophisticated music. He now put aside his first Quinteto and made several recordings with his new ensemble in Italy. Within a year the Conjunto 9 had run into financial problems and was dissolved and in 1972 he participated in his first concert at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, sharing the bill with other Tango orchestras.
After a period of great productivity as a composer, he suffered a heart attack in 1973 and that same year he moved to Italy where he began a series of recordings which would span a period of five years. The music publisher Aldo Pagani, a partner in Curci-Pagani Music, had offered Piazzolla a 15-year contract in Rome to record anything he could write. His famous album Libertango was recorded in Milan in May 1974 and later that year he separated from Amelita Baltar and in September recorded the album Summit (Reunión Cumbre) with the saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and an Italian orchestra, including jazz musicians such as bassist Pino Presti and drummer Tullio De Piscopo, in Milan. The album includes the composition Aire de Buenos Aires by Mulligan.
In 1975 he set up his Electronic Octet an octet made up of bandoneón, electric piano and/or acoustic piano, organ, guitar, electric bass, drums, synthesizer and violin, which was later replaced by a flute or saxophone. Later that year Aníbal Troilo died and Piazzolla composed the Suite Troileana in his memory, a work in four parts, which he recorded with the Conjunto Electronico. At this time Piazzolla started a collaboration with the singer Jose A. Trelles with whom he made a number of recordings.
In 1978 he formed his second Quintet, with which he would tour the world for 11 years, and would make him world-renowned. He also returned to writing chamber music and symphonic works.
During the period of Argentine military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, Piazzolla lived in Italy, but returned many times to Argentina, recorded there, and on at least one occasion had lunch with the dictator Jorge Rafael Videla. However, his relationship with the dictator might have been less than friendly, as recounted in Astor Piazzolla, A manera de memorias (a comprehensive collection of interviews, constituting a memoir).
In 1982 he recorded the album Oblivion with an orchestra in Italy for the film Enrico IV, directed by Marco Bellocchio, and in May 1982, in the middle of the Falklands War, he played in a concert at the Teatro Regina, Buenos Aires with the second Quinteto and the singer Roberto Goyeneche. That same year he wrote Le Grand Tango for cello and piano, dedicated to Russian cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich which would be premiered by him in 1990 in New Orleans.
On 11 June 1983 he put on one of the best concerts of his life when he played a program of his music at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. For the occasion he regrouped the Conjunto 9 and played solo with the Buenos Aires Philharmonic, directed by Pedro Ignacio Calderón. The program included his three-movement Concierto para bandoneón y orquesta and his 3 movement Concierto de Nacar.
On 4 July 1984 Piazzolla appeared with his Quinteto at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, the world’s largest jazz festival, and on 29 September that same year they appeared with the Italian singer Milva at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Paris. His concert on 15 October 1984 at the Teatro Nazionale in Milan was recorded and released as the album Suite Punte del Este. At the end of that same year he performed in West-Berlin, and in theater Vredenburg in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, where VPRO-TV-director Theo Uittenbogaard recorded his Quinteto Tango Nuevo, playing, among other pieces, a very moving Adios Nonino, with as a backdrop – to Piazzolla’s great pleasure – the extremely zoomed-in “live”‘ projection of his bandoneon playing.
In 1988 he wrote music for the film Sur, and married the singer and television personality Laura Escalada on April 11. In May that year he recorded his album La Camorra in New York, a suite of three pieces, the last time he would record with the second Quinteto. During a tour of Japan with Milva he played at a concert at the Nakano Sun Plaza Hall in Tokyo on June 26, 1988 and that same year underwent a quadruple by-pass operation.
Early in 1989 he formed his Sexteto Nuevo Tango, his last ensemble, with two bandoneóns, piano, electric guitar, bass and cello. Together they gave a concert at the Club Italiano in Buenos Aires in April, a recording of which was issued under the title of Tres minutos con la realidad. Later he appeared with them at the Teatro Opera in Buenos Aires in the presence of the newly elected Argentine President Carlos Menem on Friday, June 9. This would be Piazzolla’s last concert in Argentina.
He suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in Paris on August 4, 1990, which left him in a coma, and died in Buenos Aires, just under two years later on July 4, 1992, without regaining consciousness.
Here’s a photo of a pizza I had for lunch in Buenos Aires some years ago (on this date, as it happens). It’s as eclectic as Piazzolla’s music – born also of the immense immigration of Italians to Buenos Aires in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. You can make something similar. From the photo you will notice three things: the crust is thick and doughy, there is no tomato sauce, just mounds of cheese, and assorted ingredients are baked into the cheese. Styles vary considerably in Buenos Aires, but this is the norm. Sometimes you can find a thinner crust, but tomato sauce is very rare. If tomatoes are used at all they are sliced as a topping. But . . . absolutely anything goes as a topping. In famous pizzerias, such as Los Inmortales, they have set combinations (with fancy names), but usually customers just order what they want. Unlike U.S. pizzerias, they don’t have lists of available toppings; you ask for what you want and chances are they have them – artichoke hearts, langoustines, prosciutto . . . whatever. As in Italy, the discussion with the waiter can get long and involved if you are not careful. Best to keep questions to a minimum.
My wife used to make pizza dough, but I’m not much of a baker. I do make pizzas from time to time, but I buy the dough ready made. Here in Italy it’s available in a number of places. In the U.S. it’s easy enough to buy from your local pizzeria. Then it’s a question of the right equipment. Commercial pizza ovens are hotter than home ovens. Crank yours up to the highest temperature possible. I used to have a pizza stone which I kept in the oven all the time. This also simulates the evenly heated stone surface of a commercial oven. Have your oven well preheated with the stone in place if you have one. Otherwise use a greased baking sheet. Knead the dough a little and then stretch it out to form a circle (don’t roll it), on a wooden paddle, as thick or thin as you wish. Sprinkle lavishly with grated mozzarella, then add whatever toppings you want. Slide it into the oven on the paddle and bake. After 10 minutes, turn the pizza so that it cooks evenly. It’s finished when the bottom is golden when you lift it a little to peek.
Today is Tango Day in Buenos Aires. The date was chosen because it is the birthday (1899) of famed tango musician, Julio de Caro (as well as of Carlos Gardel). I wouldn’t say it is a major celebration in Buenos Aires because tango is nowhere near as popular there as it once was. It’s now mostly old people and tourists who care. Shame. One of the great things about tango is that it is distinctively Argentino; it is not European. By gradually losing interest, younger generations are losing something of profound historical and cultural importance. I won’t go on a major rant nor spend a lot of time going over the history of tango – just a few key points followed by a little biography of de Caro (Gardel next year).
There are many kinds of tango. Tango as performed outside of Argentina is not tango. There is, for example, a ballroom style of dance that is called tango, but it is tango in name only. In Buenos Aires you can find roughly three styles of tango – milonga tango, street tango, and show tango. Milonga tango is the most traditional. Milongas are dance halls where people go to dance a number of classic dances, especially tango. There are often a lot of couples dancing so this is not the arena for flashy, complex moves. But the style is not necessarily simple. You have to know what you are doing. I can’t find a video of milonga tango, probably because it is not a spectator sport: you go to a milonga to dance, not to watch. But in this scene from Scent of a Woman, Pacino does a decidedly passable version of milonga tango to a well known tune.
The clip also includes this great, but false, line:
“No mistakes in the tango, darling. Not like life.” If you want to screw up royally, go to a milonga and see how quickly you can break one of a million subtle rules.
Show tango is at the opposite end of the spectrum. It is largely a tourist trap, but with important elements of classic tango inherent in it. It’s expansive, athletic, and showy, requiring a large space and an audience. Here’s a typical example.
I don’t care for this style much, but I’ll watch if it is free. The whole thing is choreographed, which goes against the core value of tango. Tango is improvised (the man always leading).
Street tango is somewhere in between the two extremes of the milonga and the stage. The space is smaller and the dancers more intimate. The dancing may be partly choreographed but is looser than show tango. The dancers are performing for tips, of course, and it’s only out-of-towners (and me) who watch. But the dancers are not professionals, and have usually grown up in the milongas. This group dances regularly at the intersection of calle Florida and Lavalle — a pedestrianized area in Microcentro.
Julio de Caro was a master performer and composer in the early 20th century, playing in milongas much of his career. Julio’s father opened a conservatory in San Telmo barrio (near where I used to live), in 1913, soon becoming one of the city’s best known sources for music, instruments, parts, and lessons. Julio and his brother, Francisco, were both taught the piano and violin, respectively; though their father ultimately granted them their wish to exchange instruments (a third brother, Emilio, learned the violin). Against his father’s wishes, Julio obtained a spot as a second violinist at the Lorea Theatre for a 1915 performance of a zarzuela (music-dance performance). Despite their father’s punishment and objections, the brothers began attending Buenos Aires’ popular tango recitals. Some of these early influences included bandleaders Eduardo Arolas, Juan Carlos Cobián, and Roberto Firpo.
At his friends’ prompting, de Caro played for a tango performance at the Palais de Glace, an elegant multi-purpose venue, in 1917. His solos earned him a standing ovation, and led to a permanent spot in the orchestra, led by tango legend Eduardo Arolas. The elder de Caro (who disdained popular music generally) objected vigorously, so Julio kept it secret that he had joined the orchestra for which he wrote his first tango, Mon beguin.
Eventually, his father forced Julio, at 18 years old, to leave the house, a move that pushed Francisco to join his brother. The two traveled with Arolas’ orchestra, which was very popular in both Argentina and neighboring Uruguay. The brothers contributed greatly to its fortunes, composing – among other standards in tango: Mala pinta (Shady Look), Mi encanto (My Charm), Pura labia (All Words), Don Antonio, A palada (In Spades), Era buena la paisana (She Was a Good Country Girl), Percanta arrepentida (Lamentful girl), Bizcochito (Lil’ Biscuit), Gringuita (Blondie) and La cañada (The Brook).
A business disagreement led de Caro and pianist José María Rizzuti to leave Arolas’ group in 1919. They formed a quartet with bandoneonist Pedro Maffia and violinist José Rosito, with whom they performed regularly to acclaim at a café near the Argentine Supreme Court. The group separated in 1920, however, and de Caro and Rizzuti joined bandleader Osvaldo Fresedo, with whom they toured in the United States. De Caro relocated to Montevideo, where he married and joined Minotto Di Cicco’s orchestra (1922). He was then reunited with Maffia in Buenos Aires under Juan Carlos Cobián’s direction, in 1923. His marriage ended, shortly afterwards.
Cobián’s decision to follow a love interest to New York led to the de Caro brothers’ being reunited in need of a band, at the end of 1923. Their success at a high society New Year’s Eve ball led to lucrative contracts in popular downtown cafés and for a new medium: radio. The Julio de Caro Orchestra later received a recording contract from RCA Victor and, in April 1925, performed for Edward, the Prince of Wales. U.S. jazz bandleader Paul Whiteman introduced de Caro to the Stroh violin, later that year. The device (a violin with a cornet horn at one end) had been invented for radio performances for its ability to project sound above the rest of the orchestra, and the conductor soon found it an indispensable tool. The renowned bandleader composed numerous pieces in honor of some of the prominent figures in Argentine life that attended his performances, notably chief surgeon Enrique Finochietto and President Marcelo Torcuato de Alvear.
The orchestra toured France by invitation, in 1931. They performed at Nice’s Palais de la Méditerranée, for Prince Umberto di Savoia, for the Rothschilds’ galas, and for Paramount Studios in the making of Luces de Buenos Aires (one of several the studio made, starring Carlos Gardel). The orchestra remained successful in Argentina, debuting at the nation’s leading opera house, the Colón Theatre, in 1935, and at the Teatro Opera (1936), where they presented a comprehensive “Evolution of the Tango” – leading listeners through its development from 1870, onwards. A surprise visit by the brothers’ aging parents following one of these performances led to the family’s reconciliation.
His orchestra continued its prominence among tango fans for years, introducing young talent such as vocalist Edmundo Rivero. His audiences later declining, de Caro retired from his orchestra in 1954. He remarried in 1959 and returned to a recording studio only in 1975, collaborating with author Ernesto Sábato, composer Ben Molar, composer and arranger Luis Stazo and others to make Los 14 de Julio de Caro (Julio de Caro’s 14). He was honored by the national government with a declaration of December 11 as “National Tango Day;” on that day in 1977, he received a standing ovation at Buenos Aires’ Luna Park Arena, complete with a rousing Happy Birthday to You.
Julio de Caro died in the seaside resort city of Mar del Plata, on March 11, 1980, at age 80. He was interred at Buenos Aires’ Chacarita Cemetery, beside his brother, Francisco.
Milongas are not places to eat, and show tango joints serve flashy, overpriced meals along with expensive show tickets (hawked by shills in Microcentro). I’ve never been inclined to go to one. So the only resort I have is to fall back on classic Argentine cuisine. Here’s a recipe for chipás. Chipás are small, baked, cheese-flavored rolls, a popular snack and breakfast food Argentina, especially in the north. The original name is from Guarani but the product now is quite different from the original, made with cassava starch. Now chipás are made with tapioca starch, flour, and cheese. Use a good melting cheese such as mozzarella.
⅔ cup milk
6 oz shredded melting cheese
3 tbsp butter, melted
1 ¾ cups tapioca starch
1 cup self-rising flour
Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C). Grease a baking sheet and set aside.
Stir together the egg, milk, cheese, and butter in a large bowl. Sprinkle in the tapioca starch and flour and mix well to form a dough. Knead the dough for two minutes on a lightly floured surface, then pinch off and roll up golf ball-sized pieces. Place them on the prepared baking sheet.